Think of the smallest thing you can imagine: the thin edge of a piece of paper, the width of a human hair, or, if you've ever used a microscope, the diameter of a red blood cell. A new area of scientific research deals with understanding and controlling materials thousands of times smaller than these things. It is called nanotechnology.
Many scientists believe the amazing properties that certain materials have at the nanoscale will lead to equally amazing developments, from a cure for cancer to technological enhancements to the human body. But nanotechnology is also raising ethical questions about its safety and its proper regulation. Those concerns inspired the launch last month of a new scientific journal called Nanoethics.
Editor-in-chief John Weckert says that generally nanotechnology is understood to cover "anything that scientists and technologists are doing that's working at the nano scale." The nano scale is defined as being between 1 and 100 nanometers.
How small is a nanometer? Strictly speaking, it's a billionth of a meter. To put things in perspective, comparing a nanometer to a meter is about the same as comparing a marble to the size of the earth. Weckert, a fellow at Canberra's Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, says the reason ethical issues arise is that scientists and the general public are struggling to understand both the benefits and the risks of nanotechnology.
"I think it's a mistake," he says, "but it's a common mistake, for people to think that if we do the ethics of something we're only looking at the downsides or the problems with whatever it is, that technology." Weckert says it's also important that ethicists emphasize the positive aspects and look at ways to spread the benefits more broadly.
But even understanding the benefits of nanotechnology can be a challenge, because its potential products are so varied.
Andrew Maynard is Chief Science Advisor for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. He explains that different applications of nanotechnology need to be considered separately, and he offers an example. "Nanotechnology is going to be in your iPod, but it's also in your sunscreen, and to treat iPods as you would treat sunscreen is clearly nonsensical."
Despite the ethical questions, nanotech researchers hope their new set of tiny tools will solve many problems. They speak of designing stronger, lighter building materials, finding better ways to purify water resources, and developing cancer medications that target malignant cells only.
What's surprising is that reducing certain materials from the macro to the nano scale radically changes some of their properties. For example, gold becomes a liquid at room temperatures, aluminum becomes combustible, and silicon turns into a conductor instead of an insulator. So these very small materials behave in ways that are not yet completely understood, and just the fact that they are unimaginably small creates a lot of the controversy. People fear that smaller nanotech particles in the environment might be accidentally absorbed by the human body, that invisible surveillance devices could watch our every move, or that microscopic new weapons would threaten our security in unforeseen ways.
Andrew Maynard says that so little is known of the technology itself, those concerns might be premature. "We shouldn't be talking about the risks, we should be talking about uncertainty," he insists, "because at the end of the day, we're just not quite sure whether these things are going to cause harm or not." He says he believes that in most cases, there is nothing to be worried about.
Researcher Mauro Ferrari, with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, has been studying the medical applications of nanotechnology. He agrees that the risks are very small, and the potential benefits are huge in comparison. He predicts, for example, that nanotech-enhanced screening could significantly cut the number of cancer-related deaths. And, he says, government policy makers and scientists have an ethical responsibility to spread such benefits to as many people as possible.
"Nanotechnology gives us a way to turn around the problem of unfair distribution of healthcare," Ferrari points out, adding that scientists could then focus on developing the technology that will specifically address the healthcare disparity from the beginning.
And who decides which of these technologies should be developed? Ferrari says that the community must lead the efforts "The community must set the priorities, set the concerns, give the conditions on the playing field, give the mission statements, and then the scientists need to go out and implement."
Most nanotechnologies are still at the early stages of development, and Nanoethics' editor John Weckert says now is the best time to be anticipating problems that might arise, "so it won't be necessarily a matter of just waiting to see what the problems are and then trying to solve them."
Leading science publisher Springer describes its new journal as "the watchdog of a new technology." Weckert hopes the publication can foster a better understanding of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology among scientists, policy makers and the general public.